Colorado playgrounds are ditching plastic toys for natural jungle gyms


Before 2016, Grant Frontier Park was touted as a spot the place prospectors first found gold within the South Platte River close to Denver. No one appeared to care. 

“I never saw anyone in the park,” Gordon Robertson, director of planning design and development at Denver Parks and Recreation Department, mentioned of the three-block lengthy park that straddles the river on the fringe of the Overland neighborhood. 

Denver got down to change {that a} decade earlier than, partnering with the Greenway Foundation to create greater than 100 miles of mountaineering and biking trails and greater than 20 parks, all of them linked by a restored South Platte River. 

The river has change into an instance of how cities can use current landscapes to create natural areas, parks and locations for children to discover. Replacing the plastic slides, turtles and jungle gyms with tree stumps and boulders nonetheless looks like a motion, and Colorado, stuffed with adults who use its natural areas to play on the weekends, stays one its leaders. Now guests can discover these parks close to Denver’s poorest neighborhoods in addition to its wealthiest, and all alongside the Front Range, together with Fort Collins, Boulder and, extra lately, Greeley, which simply constructed a large natural park within the jap a part of town. 

But earlier than Denver determined to rehabilitate the South Platte and use its natural surprise to create locations for children to play, it was used principally as a approach to transfer water from one level to a different. Residents of the neighborhood close to the place the park was constructed didn’t even know there was a river there, Robertson mentioned.

Robertson, nonetheless, thought there was gold within the native environment of Grant Frontier. The metropolis constructed a secondary channel by taking out tons of soil and sculpting it to result in the river and constructed a concrete jetty that restored entry to the water and the park. The work coincided with work to revive the South Platte. 

The undertaking even protected a 200-year-old cottonwood and surrounded it with boulders, a plaza and picnic space, and town constructed some bridges to cross narrower sections of the Platte.

Robertson nonetheless remembers the day he went to verify on the park after it re-opened in 2016. 

The South Platte River is seen from Grant-Frontier Park on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 in South Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“Kids were all playing games along the river,” he mentioned. “Parents were yelling at them to get out of the water. It was being used exactly as we had hoped. I was just overwhelmed. It fulfilled my hopes and dreams.” 

Robertson was already a champion of natural parks: Nearly 20 years in the past, he started throwing catalogues for plastic parks gear within the trash and telling producers to do higher. But he considers that day in 2016 a turning level. His imaginative and prescient appeared viable. 

“I can’t say I’d ever believed the river would be used that way,” he mentioned. “But it was. That was an affirmation.”

Searching for locations to discover

Adam Bienenstock, one of many leaders of the motion to transform playgrounds into natural areas, is mates with Richard Louv, who recommended children have been affected by what he known as “Nature-Deficit Disorder” in his groundbreaking e-book, “The Last Child in the Woods.”

Bienenstock operates his firm underneath the identical philosophy Louv proposed in his e-book: That being open air is essential to a toddler’s improvement and that enjoying within the natural surroundings can ease consideration problems and melancholy in kids. Bienenstock’s objective is to deliver nature, and the chance it presents for unstructured exploration, again to children.

Many cities, together with Greeley, have used Bienenstock’s experience to construct natural playgrounds: He designed Greeley’s latest park and helped renovate one other. 

“We have a lot of problems to solve,” Bienenstock mentioned. “And connection to nature is the solution to a lot of these problems.” 

The pandemic magnified these issues, a lot in order that Children’s Hospital earlier this 12 months declared a state of emergency for children’ psychological well being, an alarm that made college districts rent extra social staff and well being care professionals than ever earlier than. Some children averaged as a lot as 75 hours of display screen time every week, Bienenstock mentioned, a statistic he calls “bonkers.” Adults felt it too: It was no surprise that we so overcrowded our beloved locations — state parks, nationwide parks and wilderness areas all noticed big jumps — that some needed to set up a reservation system, together with Rocky Mountain National Park, Brainard Lake Recreation Area and Hanging Lake. 

Bienenstock sounds old school when he talks about exploring nature round his home,  a freedom that few children have right this moment. But in his home, it was a requirement: His father, John, is a number one knowledgeable in immunology and was so involved about Adam build up his resistance by biodiversity that he forbade the boy to scrub his fingers earlier than dinner.

Robert Lee and Isabelle, 2, at Grant Frontier Park in Denver. “We live two blocks from here, so we’re in this park every day. We feel really lucky that we’ve got this whole park just literally in our backyard,” Lee mentioned. “Seems like it’s kind of this hidden gem.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Bienenstock, the founder and CEO of Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds in Canada, today focuses on displays, advocacy and coaching. The enterprise additionally designs, manufactures and installs natural playgrounds. 

His firm may set up tree trunks for children to climb on or hop on from one to the subsequent. Not solely are these natural, however the expertise modifications each time a toddler performs on them, Bienenstock mentioned. 

“We didn’t build them a plastic hippo,” he mentioned. “That plastic hippo will always be a hippo. But a few logs can be a hippo or a car or a parkour experience.”

It made sense, even maybe again within the Eighties, to construct playgrounds with plastic hippos as a result of kids then had extra alternative to attach with nature, play in streams and catch turtles within the woods. 

“Parks are for experiences you wouldn’t otherwise have,” he mentioned. “We took away kids’ roaming places. Now you have to make people admit that their experience was totally different than their kids’. People are still just now realizing that.”

Bienenstock calls his parks “gateway experiences,” locations that encourage children to really feel snug within the open air and ultimately encourage them to exit on their very own and, say, hike up Hanging Lake or climb their first 14er. The common age of those that go to nationwide parks continues to go up, he mentioned. 

He’s inspired by the truth that Colorado smashed attendance data in all these outside locations in 2020: That means extra children are visiting them. He is, in spite of everything, additionally nervous about their future. 

“If we want them to care for our environment, and we desperately need them to,” he mentioned, “they’d better have some experiences in it before they can do anything about it.”

A brand new place to play 

Until October, the sphere in east Greeley had the unlucky honor of being overshadowed by the enormous dinosaur waterslide within the Discovery Bay Waterpark throughout the road. But Justin Scharton had a variety of hope for the sphere, and now that town constructed its newest park on it, he sees it because the cornerstone of an effort to alter the lives of the close by residents. 

“If they can’t get to nature, for socioeconomic factors or whatever,” mentioned Scharton, superintendent of the tradition, parks and recreation division for town of Greeley, “we want to bring nature to them.”

In early October, town opened a park, one of many first in Greeley to eschew jungle gyms and monkey bars for a extra natural setting. There are bear caves, paths that wind all through play stations and obstacles resembling boulders and tree trunks. There is a slide, but it surely’s a concrete whoosh that acts as a reward of kinds while you climb to the highest of the park’s steep hill. Take that, dinosaur. 

The still-unnamed park was sufficient to maintain Karen Scopel, Greeley’s natural lands coordinator, out of retirement, although she is (with out being particular) near retirement age. She’s by no means had a undertaking like this one. 

“I’m having too much fun,” Scopel mentioned. 

She hoped to be the primary down the slide, the truth is, however a metropolis planner beat her to it. 

Becky Smith, Levi Smith, 4, and Arlie Smith, 1, check out a concrete slide on the new natural playground at East Greeley Natural Area on Saturday. The park is designed to encourage children to make use of their imaginations. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Greeley spent about $1 million of its personal cash, along with practically $1 million in grants and in-kind work, so Bienenstock may rework the sphere into an expertise he raves about. 

City leaders name neighborhoods resembling these surrounding the realm “outdoor deserts,” in the identical manner they wish to name locations with out entry to grocery shops and the recent vegetables and fruit they carry “food deserts.” 

These locations, unsurprisingly, are usually within the lower-income components of a metropolis. Discovery Bay was a small a part of altering that, because it’s extensively thought of Greeley’s finest pool, but it surely’s seasonal, and nobody would think about it a natural space. 

Scharton admits east Greeley is underserved in some ways, and the residents, practically 7,000 of them, have been missed, he mentioned. It is a low-income space the place many blue-collar staff, Latinos and refugees dwell. But Scharton mentioned the dearth of inexperienced areas, parks and different facilities have extra to do with U.S. 85 and the issue of offering them throughout such an enormous, isolating barrier. Still, he’s not right here to offer excuses. He’s right here to speak about making it proper. 

There are 2,500 households within the space, and but town struggles to attach with them. 

They’ve searched for neighborhood leaders and haven’t discovered them, principally as a result of there isn’t a cohesive group apart from the Boys and Girls Club. There are no church buildings, and the colleges have been disrupted by COVID-19 and haven’t recovered. Yet he’s considerably inspired concerning the engagement residents confirmed for the realm, even when they needed to go door-to-door to get it. 

Residents requested for a spot to stroll and experience their bikes, and that might simply be served by the brand new park: The metropolis may also set up a soft-surface path that winds across the edges. 

“It will be a 10-minute walk to nature for these residents,” he mentioned. 

This is what excites Scopel concerning the undertaking. She is aware of some could also be nervous, and even afraid, of the outside due to their unfamiliarity with what’s on the market. Others could not really feel welcome, prefer it’s not for them. Scopel mentioned she hopes the brand new park modifications that with a delicate introduction to what nature can provide. The metropolis despatched a sign to residents that this park could be completely different when she introduced sticks and sand to group conferences and inspired children to play with them. 

“It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to get people out into nature and appreciate it and enjoy it,” she mentioned. “I want people to be comfortable with it.” 

A boy who lives within the neighborhood scrambles over boulders on the new natural playground at East Greeley Natural Area on Saturday. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s there for them, however do they know that? 

Still, you possibly can construct a spot like that, however as soon as it’s carried out, residents want to make use of it. 

Greeley had good luck with Bienenstock’s redesign of Woodbriar Park in west Greeley (a 15-minute drive from the brand new park in east Greeley), which reopened in 2018 with an all-natural playground and a water characteristic of kinds that makes use of rocks to attract folks to a restored Cottonwood Creek. But the neighborhood surrounding that park is filled with middle-class residents with reasonable incomes who’d lived in Colorado and used its facilities for years. 

Fabiola Padilla Vega represents the opposite half.

Padilla Vega works for town as its wholesome neighborhood coordinator, and a part of her job is to make sure residents are snug and, extra importantly, acquainted with the facilities town has for them. She takes a cell recreation trailer and performs outside video games with the neighbors (not simply sports activities) to draw them to close by parks and natural areas and present them they are welcome. That message is tough to ship, because of cultural gaps and language limitations that transcend Spanish, which she speaks.

“I just don’t think they know what’s going on,” Padilla Vega mentioned. “I’m trying to communicate that they can use it.”

This is extra of an issue in Greeley, a various city with decrease incomes than, say, Loveland or Fort Collins. But Denver sees this fairly a bit as nicely, mentioned Robertson, the Denver Parks and Rec parks planner. Even a view of the mountains doesn’t ease children’ fears after they haven’t had the chance to go to them. 

“We do have kids who see the mountains and consider them a very faraway place,” Robertson mentioned. “It’s scary to them.”

Many organizations are attempting to beat these fears. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has a program that enables households to take a look at a backpack stuffed with sources, together with path guides, binoculars and a free state park move from the library. 

Hundreds of libraries throughout Colorado take part in Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Check Out State Parks program that enables patrons to borrow a backpack stuffed with sources, together with path guides, binoculars and a free state park move. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

“We’ve focused on inclusion in the state,” mentioned Bridget Kochel, a CPW spokeswoman. “We want people to experience our state parks no matter who they are.” 

Padilla Vega anticipates she must present the residents the smooth path and what it’s for, and he or she could should skip alongside the tree trunks and present the children find out how to play. She will get it: She didn’t hike rising up both. 

“I grew up in a Hispanic household, and trails aren’t something we used,” she mentioned. “We weren’t even sure who was allowed to use them. We didn’t think they were for us.”

She went to school and was uncovered extra to leisure alternatives, but it surely took a very long time for her to really feel snug within the open air: Her job with town helped as nicely.

“Once this area is up and running, my goal is to explain what is going on,” Padilla Vega mentioned. “I hope that eventually they will gravitate to the area on their own the more exposed they are to it.”

Scharton understands these challenges and hopes town can overcome them with the distinctive design of the park. Residents of the realm could also be afraid to enterprise out and take a look at the path. They could also be afraid of creatures resembling coyotes and bears. (Snd earlier than you chortle, what number of suburbanites are you aware who are nervous about mountain lions in, say, a natural space resembling Horsetooth Rock in Fort Collins?)

“I don’t want it to look like something I’m familiar with,” he mentioned of the brand new park in east Greeley. “I don’t want to put a Colorado stamp on it. I hope they can get the message that it’s here when you are ready for it.”

The residents must take possession of it, not town, and form it to fulfill their wants. The first step will happen subsequent spring, after they choose a reputation for it, one thing that may sign to them that it’s their park. 

Kids take a look at out new play constructions at Paco Sanchez Park in Denver in 2018, when the primary part of the “reimagining play” rebuild opened. (Evan Semón Photography, Denver Parks and Recreation)

Park gear perceived as secure could also be making children extra accident susceptible

There are parks that use distinctive designs that fulfill most of the similar missions because the outdoor-themed parks with out being modeled after them. Perhaps the perfect instance of that is Paco Sanchez Park in Denver. 

“We wanted to do something no one’s ever seen before,” mentioned Gordon Robertson, director of planning design and development at Denver Parks and Recreation Department. “It’s not nature. But the cool thing is there are 1,000 ways to play on it.” 

The park is now certainly one of Denver’s hottest and solves one of many issues Robertson noticed within the plastic park gear: More than a decade in the past, a examine discovered that kids within the U.S. have been extra accident susceptible as a result of they performed on structured, secure gear that didn’t develop the sort of crucial pondering expertise that helps us keep away from crashes, Robertson mentioned. 

“The experience in this playground is left up to the child,” Robertson mentioned. “The next move isn’t so obvious. A bit more imagination is required.” 

The playground is throughout Federal Boulevard from Sun Valley, thought of the poorest neighborhood in Denver. Robertson and others met with group leaders and requested them in the event that they wished the bizarre playground, they usually mentioned sure. Robertson wished to place the construction underserved space to offer them one thing for their children and a supply of satisfaction. 

“Now people from everywhere drive to it,” he mentioned. “They get visitors from neighborhoods all Denver.”

Is it signage or parkour? Kids leap on gear at Paco Sanchez Park that capabilities each as an indication and a spot to problem steadiness and scrambling expertise in 2017. (Denver Parks and Recreation)

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